Haiti: From The Ground Up

06/06/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Aid workers often seem jaded when confronted with the world's misery. Many resort to cynicism, perhaps in the hope of distancing themselves emotionally from the victims of the tragedy unfolding before them. In Haiti - where an earthquake in early January devastated Port-au-Prince and left more than a million people homeless -- I sensed a greater sense of empathy amongst the aid community. Many had lived in Haiti prior to the earthquake and had a deep attachment to the Haitian people. The earthquake felt like an undeserved blow to a country just picking itself up.

Natural disaster scenes are traumatic because everything is transformed in a flash and there is no time to adjust. On January 12th, the inhabitants of Port-au-Prince and its surrounding area fell into a sudden and complete devastation of everything around them. In the weeks following, thousands of international aid workers, both professionals and volunteers, came to assist Haitians in moving people out of the rubble, tending to the wounded and providing care for the survivors.

Almost three months after the earthquake, the scale of the problem remains utterly daunting. Now that the emergency medical rescue phase is over, the relief effort has become an intractable rubik's cube of activities in which coordination and sequencing are crucial. From removing rubble to providing shelter, protecting women from sexual violence to providing employment, this complex response requires a wide range of actors who must learn to work with each other.

Unlike 2004's Asian tsunami, another disaster of immense proportions, the Haiti earthquake severely affected the government and the United Nations, leaving the very institutions that would normally organize and lead the response devastated. The crippling of the government is best exemplified by the collapse of the presidential palace, which is now surrounded by makeshift displacement camps with tens of thousands of homeless Haitians.

The UN, which traditionally supports the government's efforts, lost close to a hundred staff, including its head of mission and one of his deputies. The remaining, and only recently appointed, deputy, Kim Bolduc, is also a survivor of the Canal Hotel bombing in Iraq in August 2003. She has been through the two most traumatic events in recent UN history and was nonetheless left managing the largest ever humanitarian appeal.

It is not terribly surprising that the initial humanitarian response fell short given this difficult context. It took three weeks before aid organizations could meet with the Humanitarian Coordinator. Bolduc recently resigned. In hindsight, the UN is to blame for its poor human resource management, and it should be condemned given the initial shortcomings in the UN's humanitarian leadership.

The most vocal critics are, of course, the Haitians themselves, who have survived this traumatic event and are still sleeping on the streets or fleeing the capital to the provinces. When I interviewed displaced families in February, most of their ire was directed at their own government, whom they accused of incompetence and negligence. However, international agencies are also partly to blame, and their response has been challenged by the UN's own Emergency Chief, as well as aid agencies such as Doctors Without Borders.

As my own organization Refugees International has argued, the devastation of Port-au-Prince now implies the reconstruction of the entire country -- a mammoth task that is going to take years if not decades. If support is invested in provincial communities, it will provide an incentive for those living in the Port-au-Prince camps to move to the provinces, lessening the strain in the densely populated capital. While the reconstruction will have to start from the ground up, the blueprints are already there. High-profile figures such as health care activist Paul Farmer and academic and World Bank expert Paul Collier have generated many ideas on how best to tackle reconstruction. Moreover, Haiti had already drafted its Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper in 2007 and the U.S. government had just put the finishing touches on its own development plan for Haiti just as the earthquake struck.

The commitment of the Clintons -- Bill as the UN Special Envoy to Haiti and Hillary as U.S. Secretary of State -- has translated into funding pledges from foreign governments, exceeding expectations. Both Clintons seem to feel a genuine connection to the country because of their honeymoon visit in the mid 1970s (which makes me wish that the Obamas had spent theirs in Somalia).

But perhaps more importantly, Haiti is home to an extraordinarily vibrant and engaged civil society. Some of these grassroots organizations have a national presence with tens of thousands of members, while others have recently sprung up in response to the earthquake. It is vital that the funds and technical expertise of international organizations be matched with the local knowledge and commitment of Haitian organizations. Building working relationships with civil society organizations takes time, but in the long run these relationships generate community acceptance, strengthen local capacity and reduce duplication.

The cynics will scoff, but we continue to hope that the earthquake will be remembered not only for its devastating impact, but for being the catalyst of the rebuilding of the Haitian nation as well. Sometimes, even the cynics can be persuaded.